In the spring of 2012, Pepsi Max sent a brief to The Marketing Arm asking the firm to develop a video to underscore the product’s identity as a zero-calorie soda with bold taste. The brand team wanted to feature one of its newest endorsees, Kyrie Irving, a rookie with the Cleveland Cavaliers, in the video.
The Marketing Arm’s vice president of content development, Marc Gilbar, read the brief and recalled the 1984 “Saturday Night Live” sketch in which Eddie Murphy went undercover as a white man. He thought doing something similar with Irving would be fun.
“We just thought, ‘What if we dressed him up as an 80-year-old man?’” Gilbar said. “On the surface, he’d be an 80-year-old man, but he could dunk and still play. That’s what the Pepsi Max brief was all about: You look at it and see one thing, but inside was something different.”
Fast forward to the 2012 NBA Finals and basketball fans saw a familiar character pop up during commercial breaks, Uncle Drew.
But here's what fans who see the ad on ABC probably don't know: The video was never intended for broadcast in the first place. Pepsi had little choice but to buy some prime ad time after seeing its short spot go mega-viral online, gaining nearly 10 million YouTube views in three weeks.*
"We had no plans at all to advertise on the NBA Finals, and no media plans for this spot at all," Pepsi Max marketer Sam Duboff, who led development of the Uncle Drew spot. "But people here got so excited when they saw how it performed, and we were able to produce enough metrics that finding the media budget for it just made a lot of sense."
The broadcast ad was a 30-second trailer of sorts for the original video and directed viewers back to the full version online via a URL.
That full version has proved to sticky as well as popular among the web's short attention spans. Duboff says 80% of viewers are still watching four minutes in. The hashtag #UncleDrew has been mentioned 10,000 times on Twitter, and major sports figures and sites such as NBA star Steve Nash and ESPN site Grantland.com have shared the ad with readers and followers.
The video lasted only 4 minutes and 58 seconds. When it was released, Irving tweeted it, and the effort quickly gained momentum. It has received more than 30 million views and averages almost 20,000 views a day.
The video was such a success that Pepsi Max is building on it. In the fashion of The Blues Brothers, who drive around putting “the band” back together, Uncle Drew is now going to play pickup games with former “teammates.” He recently took a heavily made-up Kevin Love out for a game.
The brand also used the idea for NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon. He went undercover to a local car dealership and took a terrified car salesman on a thrill ride in a Chevrolet Camaro. The video already has picked up more than 42 million YouTube views since its debut last month.
“That’s the amazing thing about Pepsi Max as a brand, their appetite to take risk,” Gilbar said. “It’s a good example of a brand being brave and taking a chance and having it work out.”
Duboff says the Uncle Drew video was produced on a "digital budget" that was a fraction of the cost of a typical broadcast production budget, which could have funded "several" productions like this. Already an emerging model in advertising, testing ideas online before splurging on a full media buy is something Duboff sees gaining more traction with huge brands such as Pepsi.
"I think there's always going to be a role for big budget Super Bowl ads," he says. "But when you start to see something like this resonate and perform well, it adds a whole new element to what you can do."
* YouTube views currently stand at 34 million.
Watch the video...